South Side residents wary of Olympics

Fifth Ward resident Thelma Merchant has heard the promises about what the Olympics will do for her South Side neighborhood, and she's skeptical.

"People come in with great ideas, but the implementation never occurs," says Merchant,  72, a retired Chicago Public Schools employee.

Merchant was one of several wary residents who attended a meeting of the ward's Olympic Task Force last night. The group, formed by Alderman Leslie Hairston is focusing on how the neighborhood will be affected if Chicago is selected as host of the 2016 Olympic Games.

The city's proposal for the games has, as its centerpiece, an 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Washington Park, which borders the western side of the ward. It would be transformed into a 7,500-seat facility after the Olympics. On the eastern side, Jackson Park, host of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, would be the site of the hockey fields.

Many residents wanted to know how their predominantly African American communities, which are lacking in capital and skilled labor, could profit from the building, transportation, food contracts, and tourist revenues that the Olympics generate.

David Thigpen, vice president of policy for the Chicago Urban League, told residents that local business owners should "use the Olympics as a catapult," in order to expand their businesses in anticipation of the games.

But, Thigpen said, small businesses, which include many of those owned by the African Americans, have not fared as well during past Olympics as larger companies.

He urged business owners to combine in joint ventures in order to become viable bidders for Olympic contracts.

Other residents said they were concerned that rising real estate values associated with redevelopment will force low-income residents out of their homes.

The city does not plan to displace any residents with its building proposal, though the Olympic Village, which could be built on the site of the Michael Reese Hospital, would result in job losses for doctors, nurses, and other workers.

The next task force meeting is July 24 at 6:30 p.m. in the Jackson Park Field House at 6401 S. Stony Island Avenue.